Getting it Right

Okay, I admit it. When I first began writing, research wasn’t my favorite thing to do. That seems strange because I do enjoy learning—even trivial things. But when it came to writing, I just wanted to delve into a story.

But writing a novel, novella, or even a short story without checking the facts can be disastrous. Readers are savvy, and they can be quick to pick up on the tiniest mistake. (As a reader, I’ve done the same thing.) Therefore, research is necessary.

I recently wrote a short story for a time-travel anthology and probably spent more time researching facts for this 5,000-word piece than I did for two full-length novels. I had to check facts about aircraft carriers, Navy fighter jets, and information about military bases.

Because the story takes the main character back to 1943, I needed to make sure I had all my facts straight for that period. For instance, I mention the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. We know today the vessel was named for our thirty-third president, but in May of 1943, Harry Truman hadn’t yet become a vice-president. He was still a senator. Referring to him as President Truman, or even Vice-President Truman in 1943 would have been a big mistake.

Fellow author Mae Clair’s Point Pleasant series takes place in the early 1980s. People under the age of thirty will disagree with me, but I tend to think of the 1980s as more modern times (at least in relation to the 1940s.) And in some ways, I think setting a story during this time is a bit challenging and requires a lot of research.

Consider this. IBM introduced the first personal computer in 1981 (Apple was already making desktop computers in the mid-1970s), but most houses didn’t have computers until much later. Internet and the World Wide Web didn’t become popular with households until the 1990s.

Believe it or not, Motorola produced a handheld phone in 1973, but most people didn’t begin using cellular devices until the 1990s. (Smartphones came even later.) In the early 1980s, if you wanted to make a call, you would use a land-line device (not cordless). If you were away from home, you went in search of the nearest phone booth.

Technology and world events are a couple of things we should research before writing a story. Settings are another. In my opinion, the best way to research is to visit the area in which you want to set your novel. (Could make for a great vacation!)

If that’s not possible, get on your desktop or laptop PC, connect to the web, and search away. Text a friend or use your smartphone to call someone who might now.

We are fortunate that we have such a wide range of resources at our fingertips. Extensive research no longer requires a trip to the local library. Who knows what new and exciting things you might learn along the way.

Joan Hall

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35 thoughts on “Getting it Right

  1. I agree–getting the facts right are important, or as close to right as we can. Some of the things I’ve caught in bestsellers are a drug that was mentioned during a decade in which it hadn’t even been developed yet, and recently I was reading a book set in the 1980s that seemed to have a lot of inconsistencies. I kept stopping and thinking, “Hmm, did they really have this in the 80s?”

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  2. Wonderful post, Joan. You have a couple of deep researchers as members of Story Empire. I think it’s all important, and have spent weeks chasing down something that went in one sentence. I even humanized the process to a degree when the Research Sirens appear on my own blog. This is because they have the ability to draw me away from the true purpose of writing the story.

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    • Craig, I’m learning to like it. Guess it’s my thirst for knowledge. Also, I think that writing out of our comfort zone helps us to grow as writers. For instance, my current novel series is set in Small Town, Texas. Easy for me because that’s where I live. Setting a story in New England, for example, would take a lot of research on my part.

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  3. I love doing research for a novel, mostly because I tend to write about subjects that intrigue me and doing research is another way to soak up more about them. Thanks for the mention of my Point Pleasant series, Joan. Even though I lived through the 80s, I had to go back and research pop culture, news issues and more for that time period. In many ways it was like a stroll down memory lane.

    I do agree that if you can visit an area where you plan to set your novel, it’s a tremendous benefit. I did that with Point Pleasant, and believe the two trips I made helped me better catch the feel of the town and community.

    I remember reading your story in Quantum Wanderlust and being enthralled with the setting. The research you did really brought the time period of the 40s to life. You made me nostalgic for a era I’d never experience before. It really goes to show how attention to detail and getting facts straight pay off for both writer and reader!

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  4. I’m probably weird, but I love researching for my fiction. I won’t go so far as to say I always get every detail right, but I strive for as much accuracy as possible.

    My sister and I were talking about our childhoods just the other day. We lived through things our kids could never fathom. For example, phones alone have changed so much. Rotary phones (hated numbers with zeroes and nines in them). Corded phones. Phone numbers that only took five digits to call local numbers. Party lines. Long distance calls. Car phones. Portable phones in bags.

    Life has changed so much, technologically and otherwise. Just watch a favorite old movie and you’ll be amazed! Loved this post, Joan.

    Liked by 5 people

    • You are right, a lot has changed. From rotary dial phones to digital smartphones, think about how far we’ve come. I for one am glad we no longer have party lines! Here’s a bit of a twist. My thirty-something-year-old coworker said this to me a few years back. “You have lived during a time when men walked on the moon. I haven’t.” Guess in ways we’ve taken a step back.

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  5. Guess a benefit of other world fantasy is that I just have to keep my own creations and notes in mind, but that still requires research as I get further into a story or series. Great point on 1980’s being a tough era to write about. Things seemed to change so rapidly starting at that point and people who grow up in that time tend to be really quick to point out mistakes. I have a few friends that practically live for that.

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    • I think it even matters in fantasy. Simple things like tides and weather matter. You might research blacksmithing for some realism. I’ve done some pretty deep research into witchcraft, voodoo, and hoodoo for my paranormal tales. Some knowledge of beasts of burden might apply to fantasy too.

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      • True, but you can get around most things with magic. At least if you’re working with a world that isn’t Earth. Personally I think it’s more important to be consistent with the rules of your own world, which does require research of past creations. For example, making sure you keep the direct weather pattern chosen for a desert, which could be one where it rains every day and the heat evaporates the water too fast for plants and animals. Having that change in the next book would be an issue.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Very true about the general research. Horses have to be rested every so many days when in regular use on a journey. The Hittites had a thorough manual about how to train their warhorses – diet, rest, etc. as well as the specifics of battle-training. Details about rough camping, hiking, tracking, survival and such are very useful in fantasy.

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    • You are right, Charles. We began to see rapid changes in technology beginning then. As yes, research is important, even in fantasy. If nothing else, to keep consistent in our stories. Thanks for the comments.

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